PORT TOWNSEND — High-end homes on a golf course, homeless encampments, the effect of a rising sea level on downtown: These and other topics gave six Port Townsend City Council candidates plenty to talk about during an election forum.
The room was full of listeners, campaign volunteers and housing advocates during the Housing Solutions Network-hosted forum last Saturday at the Cotton Building on Water Street.
Director Justine Gonzalez-Berg posed questions previously submitted by the public, giving candidates two minutes to respond to each.
The Aug. 3 primary election will pare down to two the candidates who will face each other in the general election race for Position 5. The forum also included candidates who will be on the November general election ballot.
Libby Urner Wennstrom, whose opponents for Position 5 are Sky Hardesty-Thompson and Tyler Vega, spoke about changing city code to allow for more population density.
“Can you put a fourplex on a space for a duplex? Can you put a duplex on a space for a single- family house?” she asked, adding she wants to see the city modify its regulations to allow more of those types of housing.
The rub, Wennstrom quickly added, is that the city is having trouble hiring planning department staff — because prospective workers can’t find anywhere to live.
“There’s a loop there,” she said.
Vega sought to call the room’s attention to climate change and how it affects people on the North Olympic Peninsula.
“This is what my life has been geared toward for decades now,” he began.
“Don’t wait around for the feds to solve this problem … we have to solve [it] locally,” with measures such as solar panels and water catchment on every roof, Vega said.
Cities must build with disaster preparedness in mind, he added.
“Imagine what your life would look like if the power grid went down,” the Salish Sea rose to flood downtown, or both, Vega said.
Hardesty-Thompson spoke of another emergency: the people living here without good shelter.
“We need to be proactive,” he said, with “individual advocates that go and develop trusting relationships” with people who are experiencing homelessness.
Those advocates should learn the reasons for each person’s situation and help them connect with local resources.
“Sometimes, some of these people, they don’t need much to get from being homeless into an apartment,” Hardesty-Thompson said.
At the same time, “I’d love to see a subsidized apartment complex get built real quickly,” even as the city incentivizes developers “perhaps to split the golf course into high-end condos that we could tax.”
Ben Thomas, who’s running against Cameron Jones for City Council Position 1 in the Nov. 2 general election, sought to bring levity to the table.
Even if we “tear down the bridge and dismantle the ferries,” people will keep moving to Port Townsend, he said.
The time is now to plan for walkability and a variety of housing stock, he added — and if we do what we’ve always done, it’s not going to work for the community’s future.
Jones agreed that whatever happens, people will keep coming, hoping to make their homes here. City leaders and residents must engage in deeply thought-out conversations, he said, to develop a community that includes multi-generational housing and where people of color, who may lack intergenerational wealth, can live.
Green, environmentally sustainable businesses also should be welcomed, Jones said.
Aislinn Diamanti, who is running unopposed for City Council Position 2, noted during the forum that she and the rest of the candidates have met with City Manager John Mauro and several city department heads. She’s been told Port Townsend can “absolutely” handle higher density.
That term does not mean high-rises on every block, Diamanti added. Instead, she advocates fourplexes, and plenty of them.
Changing city code to permit more multi-family homes instead of just single-family homes is a hope she shares with several other candidates.
Wennstrom emphasized that the city should seek to partner with other entities, be they funders or nonprofit housing organizations, to get homes constructed.
She called attention to the Olympic Community Action Programs’ Seventh and Hendricks project, set to break ground today.
“That’s going to be 43 units of affordable housing,” Wennstrom said, adding the complex, years in the making, was born of a partnership between OlyCAP and other agencies, including the city, state and county.
Near the end of the housing forum, Diamanti spoke about each person’s role as a change maker.
“We have the opportunity to share our values all the time,” she said. “We get to have hard conversations with our neighbors — and with people we barely know.”
These exchanges can be about renting out a house or a room, or embracing new construction of a fourplex on a street.
One of the most important roles an individual plays in society, Diamanti said, is to “tell people what you care about.”